EXPERT REVIEW

KansasCity.com's view

You may not be able to catch lightning in a bottle, but Ford caught lightning in a truck. Or rather, the gearheads at Ford’s Special Vehicle Team (SVT) did.

SVT’s F-150 Lightning is a hunkered-down hauler that is the sports car of pickup trucks. For $29,995 you get a short-bed, regular-cab truck with a supercharged 5.4-liter V8, a stiffer suspension and an interior that is more comfortable than a Mustang. It rides on gigantic 18-inch wheels and looks street tough with a deep front bumper, fog lights and dual side pipes that exit in front of the rear wheel.

The price includes leather seats, stereo, air conditioning, power windows and power locks. The only options are a CD changer, tonneau cover and a Class III towing package.

Unfortunately, most of the 1999 models were purchased in advance, so finding one will be difficult. The folks at SVT say that the 2000 model, which will be out in January or February, should be somewhat easier to obtain. Production will be increased from 4,000 to 5,000 as well. Aside from the Lightning, SVT sells the Mustang Cobra and SVT Contour only through SVT-certified Ford dealers.

Prod the throttle and you’re treated with the kind of thrust that feels like it would launch a Boeing 747, thanks to the supercharger that produces a Paul Bunyan-like 360 horsepower and 440 ft. lbs. of torque. That’s serious motivation, even for a vehicle that weighs ????? pounds. The supercharger is cleverly nestled in the vee of the engine where it huffs air through a water-to-air intercooler, a small radiatorlike device that cools the air to make it denser. SVT says its brute charges to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds, flies through the quarter-mile in 14.6 seconds and has a top speed of 140 mph. That’s impressive in any league, but jaw-dropping for a full-size pickup truck. Practicality hasn’t gone completely out the window, either, because the Lightning can carry an 800-pound payload or tow 5,000 pounds.

If you’re not careful with the throttle you can transform the rear tires’ tread into black streaks on the pavement. For the most part, traction is excellent because the humongous Goodyear Eagle F1-GS tires grip the road as if they were coated with Polident.

Reining in all this horsepower takes big brakes, and SVT turned to the four-wheel discs and anti-lock system of the F-250 Super Duty truck. These thicker discs are ventilated for cooling, enabling the Lightning to screech to a halt from 60 mph to a stop in 137 feet, which is just 10 feet more than the SVT Mustang Cobra. SVT quotes a 0-100-0 mph time of 22.5 seconds. Well-rounded performance has always been the trademark of SVT, and to that end the F-150’s suspension has been thoroughly massaged. Special springs and gas-charged shock absorbers have been fitted all around, along with front and rear stabilizer bars. Five-leaf springs replace the standard three-leaf units in the back. The front-end rides one-half inch lower while the back is two inches lower.

SVT’s combination of springs and shocks results in a ride that feels firm and taut, yet not buckboard rough. There is a moderate amount of choppiness from the back axle on bumpy pavement, but in general, this truck rides more like a Mustang GT than a pickup. It felt best in the cut and thrust of the freeway, where its awesome power could be accessed with only the slightest dab of the throttle. It is surprisingly quiet considering the fact that you’re pushing a pretty big object through the wind.

At cruising speed, the well-controlled ride is most comfortable. Find a twisty road, or a tightly arcing exit ramp, and what you experience there is perhaps more remarkable than straight-line acceleration. The Lightning turns into corners slicker than a magician turns scarves into doves. There is only a trace body roll and no feeling of top-heaviness, which is quite an accomplishment for such a tall truck. SVT claims this vehicle circles a id pad at 0.85g, a figure that annihilates regular trucks and puts it on par with most sports cars.

Befitting its sports-car personality, the interior has been reworked with the standard 60/40 split bench getting heavily contoured outer seats covered in sueded leather with dark cloth inserts. The large center backrest folds down so it can be used as an armrest with a built-in storage bin and cupholder.

Small storage boxes are located behind each seat.

The gauges in the instrument panel have light gray faces but, to me, they don’t look as good as the standard F-150 gauges.

SVT believes that for drivers to get the most pleasure from their products, drivers need to have well-honed skills. To that end, new SVT owners get a discount at the Bob Bondurant School of High-Performance Driving in Phoenix, where SVT Cobras and SVT Contours are the training vehicles.

Price
The base price of our test truck was $29,995. Adding the CD changer and tonneau cover brought the sticker price to $30,355.

Warranty
Three years or 36,000 miles

Point: The Lightning draws admiring glances and plenty of conversation from strangers because it looks so tough. The best part is that it performs way better than it looks and drives more like a sports car than some sports cars.

Counterpoint: The temptation to smash the throttle is hard to resist, but unless you want to stop at every gas station it pays to be prudent.

SPECIFICATIONS:
ENGINE: 5.4-liter V8
TRANSMISSION: automatic
CONFIGURATION: Rear-wheel drive
WHEELBASE: 119.8 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 4,670 lbs.
BASE PRICE: $29,995
PRICE AS DRIVEN: $30,355
MPG RATING: 13 city, 17 hwy

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